Police in Cambridgeshire told to only use cells as “last resort” for those with mental health issues

FAR too many people with mental health issues are being held in police cells in Cambridgeshire in breach of Government advice.

A joint report on custody suites by HM Inspector of Prisons and HM Inspector of Constabulary, says there were 250 cases in Cambridgeshire in the year to March 31.

Although the report notes the 'high use of section 136 of the Mental Health Act' it says this is a 'dramatic reduction' from over 500 in the previous year.

'It followed a concerted campaign to use the section more appropriately,' says the report.

The inspectors' say that police and NHS partners had produced a revised draft section 136 protocol 'which unambiguously states that police custody should only be considered as a place of safety as a last resort.

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'Nonetheless police custody suites (in Cambridgeshire) were used extensively and inappropriately as place of safety'.

The inspectors, however, point to an overall improvement in custody suites serving Peterborough, Huntingdon, Cambridge, March, Ely and St Neots as well as Kings Lynn whose cells are now used regularly by Cambridgeshire Police.

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Nick Hardwick, Chief Inspector of Prisons, and Dru Sharpling, HM Inspector of Constabulary said they noted 'a much more positive staff culture focused on the welfare of detainees and far more respectful and decent custody facilities.'

The inspectors last visited three years ago and said despite some concerns they found Cambridgeshire custody suites to have undergone 'significant improvement.

'There has been a great deal of work done strategically to address our previous findings and much effort has been made to improve the standard of the custody estate, including safety, general cleanliness and managing graffiti.'

Cambridgeshire has 72 cells and also uses eight of the 24 cells opened at the investigation unit at Kings Lynn.

Among issues raised in the report were:

•A single sergeant sometimes operating on their own at Huntingdon-and often with several juvenile detainees- was 'potentially a high risk situation and an unacceptable risk to the sergeant and the force.

•Female prisoners were not routinely offered hygiene packs

•Huntingdon and Peterborough had copies of the Bible and Qur'an and prayers mat which were stored 'in a respectful manner although at Ely the prayer mat could not be found. The direction of Mecca was indicated by an arrow on the ceiling of each cell'.

•At Cambridge spectacles were often removed from detainees regardless of the risks involved- the report says they should only be taken away unless a risk assessment indicates otherwise.

•The source of the 'offensive smells' at the Cambridge suite should be traced and eliminated- the showers at Cambridge, too, had an 'unpleasant odour.' So bad were the showers that detention officers told inspectors they could not recall a single female detainee requesting a shower.

•Information in Braille was non existent and although forms were translated into several languages none had been adapted for those detainees with learning difficulties or limited literacy.

•At Kings Lynn officers had made 'commendable efforts' to provide rail tickets to those detainees released on bail or allowed to go free. A contract with a local taxi firm also enabled 'vulnerable detainees' to be helped home without money changing hands but the report criticises police for not familiarising staff with the arrangements.

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